Singing the Bite Me Song


Theory


July 16, 2006

Speaking of the brilliance of The Onion...

I've been thinking furiously lately about the growing pandemic of righteous relativism, not even trendy po-mo relativism. This is that odd concoction, AUTHORITARIAN RELATIVISM.

Quick! Go find the ghost of Harvard's William Perry Jr.! Let's do a study! My idea of what he might find with this new category of anti-intellectual development, after this brief word from Holy Writ, The Onion. (can you tell I'm sporting for a fight?)

Link: Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory | The Onion - America's Finest News Source.

Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory

August 17, 2005   | Issue 41•33          

KANSAS CITY, KS—As the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools continues, a new controversy over the science curriculum arose Monday in this embattled Midwestern state. Scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held "theory of gravity" is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling.

"Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, 'God' if you will, is pushing them down," said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.

Burdett added: "Gravity—which is taught to our children as a law—is founded on great gaps in understanding. The laws predict the mutual force between all bodies of mass, but they cannot explain that force. Isaac Newton himself said, 'I suspect that my theories may all depend upon a force for which philosophers have searched all of nature in vain.' Of course, he is alluding to a higher power."

[...]

According to the ECFR paper published simultaneously this week in the International Journal Of Science and the adolescent magazine God's Word For Teens!, there are many phenomena that cannot be explained by secular gravity alone, including such mysteries as how angels fly, how Jesus ascended into Heaven, and how Satan fell when cast out of Paradise.

The ECFR, in conjunction with the Christian Coalition and other Christian conservative action groups, is calling for public-school curriculums to give equal time to the Intelligent Falling theory. They insist they are not asking that the theory of gravity be banned from schools, but only that students be offered both sides of the issue "so they can make an informed decision."

[...]

Proponents of Intelligent Falling assert that the different theories used by secular physicists to explain gravity are not internally consistent. Even critics of Intelligent Falling admit that Einstein's ideas about gravity are mathematically irreconcilable with quantum mechanics. This fact, Intelligent Falling proponents say, proves that gravity is a theory in crisis.

[...]

Some evangelical physicists propose that Intelligent Falling provides an elegant solution to the central problem of modern physics.

"Anti-falling physicists have been theorizing for decades about the 'electromagnetic force,' the 'weak nuclear force,' the 'strong nuclear force,' and so-called 'force of gravity,'" Burdett said. "And they tilt their findings toward trying to unite them into one force. But readers of the Bible have already known for millennia what this one, unified force is: His name is Jesus."        

I just love physics humor. Beware of Quantum ducks! Quark! Quark!

Oh, for those who, for no fault of their own, don't know who William Perry Jr. was (no, not the oversized football player), above, here's a link.

Here's a bit from his New York Times obituary (why did the venerable Mr Perry have to have a PAID obituary?) about his famous book:

..."Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years'' (1970) described nine developmental stages. His framework started with a freshman's simplistic adherence to notions of absolute truth and morality, traced the discovery of multiple frames of reference regarding data, and the upperclassman's subsequent growth and eventual achievement of personal and ethical commitment in a relative world. This developmental framework has had nation-wide impact on the theories of the psychological development of late adolescence. ...

Another book that turns Perry's descriptive theories on their ear somewhat is:

WOMEN'S WAYS OF KNOWING The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. By Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattuck Tarule. 256 pp. New York: Basic Books. $19.95.

Otherwise known to those of us who use it as Belenky et. al. [grin]

So anyway, Belenky et. al. got to expand on Perry's descriptions of Harvard (male) undergraduate intellectual development in the 1950s, and if they get to do it, I wanna do it too! The Onion is inspiring me!

OK, here's Perry shorthand, for your crib sheet:

You show up in college (if you are male and it's the 1950s) and your world is divided into Right and Wrong. In other words, you are an authoritarian thinker. Authorities tell you what is right and wrong, frequently using the "Because I said so" argument. You get to college expecting more of the same, but if your college is worth squat, they won't let you get away with that, no sir. They actually want you to THINK FOR YOURSELF!

Radical idea, I know. Some people become authorities unto themselves, Egoistic Authoritarians, I guess. Most go the way of Perry. (Oh, btw, Belenky et. al. found that while Harvard men in the 1950s were doing this, many women in the same boat didn't have a voice, and so their intellectual position was SILENCE. As in, they were silenced. They had to break through that before they could gain their authoritarian righteousness swagger).

Now I know Perry breaks it down more finely than I'm going to do here, for the sake of my own silliness, but the thing that comes after Right and Wrong Authoritarian Dualism is a kind of defeat for overwhelmed young intellectuals. They throw up their hands in exasperation and sing (to the tune of "Everything is Beautiful") "Ooooh, Everything is Relative... in its own wa-aa-ay." Simple Relativism, otherwise known as oatmeal mush.

Simple Relativists might say:

We all have opinions, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and would you just shut up and stop making me discuss and argue every single point? THERE IS NO WAY TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN MUSHY OPINIONS ANYWAY, so let's all just go home and eat worms.

Bully for them. Future situation ethicists in the making, all of them. All opinions are interchangeable, one is as good as any other, so if someone says the world is flat, that's just as worthy a thought as if the world were round. Same if the moon is made out of green cheese. What difference does it make?

Overwhelmed people like this haven't learned that there are very good methods for weighing one viewpoint against another, of evaluating points of view and opinions, so for them, the world is simply two monster-shouters in little boxes on the screen on Fox News, each trying to out-holler the other with no way to tell if one argument is superior to another. Fox News wants us all to believe that is true, but then I'm getting ahead of myself.

To succeed in college, you are supposed to eventually think for yourself, and with luck, some professors give you intellectual tools to do things like evaluate arguments. That way you don't have to go around throwing up your hands at a world of oatmeal mush like those poor folks who watch Fox News who secretly want the ones who shout the loudest to be the winners.

So you have to think your way out of Silence, Authoritarianism, Simple Relativistic Mush, and then what happens? You learn to play sneaky little games.

Like what? Brown-Nose Games! College 101, everyone knows, is Brown-Nosing. Listen to what the teacher says and parrot it. I know, that's not sneaky, but it gets better. Brown-Nose games are a variation of Lawyer Games. That's where you learn to argue any side in an argument, and win! There were some Greek guys who perfected this to a fine art, got so good at it, some lawyers were named after them, the Sophists.

Perry would call this sophistry sophomoric, I guess, and instead see how it becomes more Complex Relativism. See, a simple relativist who believes that everything is oatmeal mush wouldn't be able to function in a Brown-Nose Universe. Brown-nosers have to be discerning, intellectual even, to be able to tell apple-cinnamon oatmeal mush from peaches and cream oatmeal mush, in order to use it to their advantage.

Brown-nosers learn the rules of the game in order to play it well. They figure, one set of rules is just as good as another set of rules, so long as they can figure out the rules. With one teacher you flatter shamelessly, another you have to sleep with, another you just learn to parrot. Like a good lawyer who can argue either side of a case, game-players of any stripe don't stop to reflect on whether the game is worthy of them, or if the game is utterly stupid, or even if the game is immoral. They just play. Complex Relativism.

Our friends Belenky et. al diverge a bit here, go off into ways of knowing things, Committed Knowing, Constructed Knowing, Collaborative Knowing (I made up that last one, I think, because I like it).

What Perry's undergrads were supposed to figure out, as their intellectual toolboxes expanded (you know, if all you have is a hammer, suddenly everything needs pounding), is that all games are not created equal, just as all opinions are not created equal. Some are better than others for reasons that we can work out through logic, support, proof, and so on. There are CRITERIA with which we can formally evaluate things and dredge our way out of the mush.

And with such evaluative power, we can argue on behalf of the superiority of certain positions, argumentative stances. We become committed to particular ways of reasoning through an issue, not because a position is RIGHT and another position is WRONG, like those Harvard freshmen, but because we can back up our thinking from a position of considering multiple viewpoints and weighing them against each other.

Of course, around about that time, some postmodernists will show up and call you a "dirty rotten foundationalist" and rant about the "tyranny of the Enlightenment" and all that. That might confuse you for a bit, thinking you had actually wandered back into that oatmeal mush, until you stop for a second and look at your own intellectual processes.

The only reason postmodernists like to call you those names is that they think anyone who jumps up and down on the lumps in their oatmeal is ready to rebuild the rigid edifices of the Inquisition, that vast enforcer of Right/Wrong authoritarianism. Postmodernists think you're the bad guy. They think you are ready to make an authoritarian religion of the ladders of thought you've built into your Committed Relativism. But your mind is more open than that, if you've come this far.

And besides, if you leave structureless, foundation-less postmodernist oatmeal out in the pan too long, it will harden into a big gray rock too, a big gray authoritarian rock of po-mo oatmeal. There are some seriously rock-hard chunks of that floating around in this world too.

But my NEW boogeyman! I want to build on Perry and Belenky et. al. for this NEW intellectual development, Authoritarian Relativism, or RIGHTEOUS RELATIVISM, oppressive relativism, preached by the true believers.

Oatmeal is simply expedient for postmodernists, who are not true believers in anything, on principle, not even in themselves. It's their anti-principle principle, their anti-foundationalist foundation. They get off on watching dogs chase their tails too.

But these new converts to the cause of relativism, they are an odd lot, as exemplified and parodied in the Onion article above.

Ron Suskind knows of these folks, one of whom admitted to him that they controlled the world because they control reality. The people who are confused, this man said, are those who are still living in the "reality-based universe."

Think of it. Conservative Authoritarian Relativists. John Dean has a book out on this topic right now too, but I haven't read it yet. Conservatives Without Conscience. I won't speak to the book much, since I haven't read it, and instead riff off the idea.

I'm not talking about conscience, though. More like I'm talking of the level of discourse that Fox News is norming out into the media landscape, overpowering the intellectual tools we hope people find in college (it's a Hail Mary pass to even dream they'll find it in high school).

The idea? Not just that all arguments about things that can't be measured, counted, or attached to a dollar value are subjective shouting matches where the loudest talker wins, but instead, a RIGHTEOUS DEVOTION to and STRIDENT ENFORCEMENT of the idea that ALL OPINIONS ARE INTERCHANGEABLE.

It's like conflating the Authoritarianism of Perry's first stage, with the Simple Relativism of the next stage, and then instead of learning criteria or ways of evaluating arguments, support, and proof, it instead requires that we must COMMIT ourselves to the idea that NO ARGUMENTS, SUPPORT, or PROOF are sufficient, and if one can do that thoroughly enough, one would have made a case for faith, for God, for the Unknown, the big Out-There. (that last step is a big leap, so I best return to it in a bit)

That's a lot to wrap my head around, so let's try to come at that again from another angle. Look at The Onion parody above. Brilliant, isn't it? Such a finessed spin on Intelligent Design. In doing so, I think it holds this kind of thinking up to the light, by virtue of the apt analogy.

Can this intellectual somersault I'm proposing actually be done? Is it being done? Sure, like John Dean says, there are Crass, Sophistic Conservatives, what we might call the "Lee Atwater School," of which Karl Rove is clearly a graduate. They probably aren't the people I'm talking about, though.

This instead is more akin to an average person, not even an avid watcher of Fox News shoutfests. People could be affected by this changing intellectual climate and not know it, until they try to have a rational discussion with someone they respect intellectually, and that person not only refuses to engage or understand actual proofs or conclusive reasoning and rebuttals, but instead righteously makes a claim that there are NO SUCH THINGS as proofs, conclusive reasoning, or rebuttals, AND that anyone who would claim such a thing is deluded (that last step is important, because folks in this camp put a lot of energy into finding people to exclude so they can deny them the keys to the kingdom).

Disenfranchising the Enlightenment, in other words. Postmodernists would counteract and rebut the Enlightenment, but would they choose to wipe the Enlightenment out of history, out of our memory? Would they long for the "good old days" of the Inquisition, of Church and State and might making right? When authorities told you what to do and think and you obeyed them, not because you thought what they said was necessarily true, but because it was better than the information glut of oatmeal mush inside your own head?

Disenfranchising human intellectual activity, in other words. That would be the overt goal, from the "Lee Atwater School" standpoint. There is nothing in "reality" that is not baldly deniable (see also the Monty Python Argument Sketch), on a national political scale, but here's where it gets scary. This is also happening around the watercooler, over beers, in college coffeehouses. Ordinary interactions are becoming less rational, less thoughtful, less carefully reasoned and weighed.

It is as if the MEDIA AUDIENCE is being deliberately turned into those overwhelmed Harvard freshmen venturing out of authoritarianism, but with the tools to deal with the flood of ideas deliberately withheld from them, so that intellectual retreat is the only response.

I do know that this particular kind of media anti-intellectualism is being manipulated by some to create that overwhelmed retreat (perhaps in the name of sixth grade reading/comprehension levels in mass media), but how does that lead to greater faith in some Supreme Deity? That last step I threw in there above was a bit of a stretch.

It would appear on the surface that righteously-enforced sophism would lead to widespread cynicism, not growing faith. That's why my bullshit detector was going off on my own line of reasoning. Maybe I got it wrong.

Would those of a certain religious persuasion (belief) hold it as a truism that driving people to extreme cynicism will lead them to god? That hardly seems like a reasonable way to go about it, when I suppose there are other ways to induce duress, that "hitting bottom" moment addicts speak of, that foxhole/hurricane need to pray (no atheists in foxholes, or, we would assume, under the screaming winds of a hurricane). Would evangelicals willingly try to fill their pews by deliberately inducing duress? (That's ruling out Charles Colson, of course, who was probably recruiting evangelical Plumbers-for-Jesus in prison and giving them their own brown shirts when they got out)

See, it just doesn't make any sense to me. Not buying it. Maybe Lee Atwaters think that, but preachers in pulpits can't all be that crass.

So that leaves what? How does Authoritarian Relativism (note to self, copyright that phrase) fill up churches? How does it lead to a world that re-creates Inquisition authoritarian castes with no cultural memory that there ever was an Enlightenment?

Maybe I answered my own question. Maybe the goal isn't to create true believers at all. In true Orwellian Doublethink (or a McLuhan-style media reversal), perhaps the goal is to fill the churches up with game-players, sophists adrift in ennui and mush, but not really committed to anything enough to object if they're asked to do any particular thing.

Authoritarian Relativists are far more malleable, I think, even than inclusive, "big tent" ecumenical types so decried by fundamentalists as a sign of the coming of the AntiChrist.

Malleable in the consumerist sense, in that they've been ultra-conditioned to blindly accept marketing messages with righteous fervor and fannish devotion (and fascist violence?) yet the marketing messages are still interchangable and can be substituted one for another at any time. The xenophobic group hate switches from illegal aliens to gays and lesbians, until the next switch. We are at war with Eurasia; we have always been at war with Eurasia.

Authoritarian Relativists are simply buttons to be pushed, in other words. Tools to be manipulated by Sophistic Conservative Authorities.

Maybe that's what's filling up those 20,000-seat mega-churches. They really don't seem to get as nutty as the 1970's charismatics did. They're pretty people who want to sing and wave their hands in a big auditorium and maybe get on TV in their nice clothes (at least that's what we see in the carefully selected video clips), ready to vote the way they're told, believe what they're told, shop in the mini-mall in the church "basement", but not to believe in anything so much that they'd ever cling to the idea of the belief in their own heads all by their own selves, without guidance from those who create and craft their fluid "un-reality-based universe."

July 16, 2006 at 08:01 PM in Best Essays, Privacy & Free Speech, Religion, Rhetoric, Satire, Singing the Bite Me Song, Television, Theory | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack